By Brad Kallet
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I was initially going to write about how immature, inappropriate and disrespectful it was for Matt Harvey to attend Yankee Stadium on Thursday night while the Mets were playing in Washington D.C. (And before you go after me, I couldn’t care less how many Rangers or Knicks games he goes to, or how many models he dates. This was completely different on so many levels.)
But then I decided to change course. Although I still think it was a low-class move, I’m over it. The season’s concluded and it’s time to move on.
Instead of more negativity, let’s focus our attention on something positive: the tremendous finish to the season for Mets slugger Lucas Duda.
What a journey it’s been.
Maybe it wasn’t a Jeterian ending, but it still had Hollywood script written all over it. If the finish to Derek Jeter’s career was written and directed by Martin Scorsese, then the story of Duda’s final weekend was a Judd Apatow production. It won’t win an Oscar and it won’t make you cry, but you’ll go see it and you’ll be very entertained.
Think back to February, March and April, when the Mets platooned Duda and Ike Davis at first base before general manager Sandy Alderson shipped the latter to the Pirates on April 18. The GM was widely panned for the move, with many calling it a salary dump and a risk considering Davis hit 32 homers for New York in 2012.
Fast forward to September, and the decision looks like a brilliant one. Duda had a breakout season and cemented himself as a middle-of-the-order bat, while Davis finished his campaign with a .233 average, 11 homers and 51 RBIs.
With every home run, Mets fans began to forget about Davis a little bit more. All of a sudden, Duda — not David Wright or Curtis Granderson — was the guy you wanted up when the situation called for a long ball.
Entering the weekend, the 28-year-old had 28 home runs with two games to play. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, it seemed like four hitters in every club’s lineup would hit 30-plus home runs.
Not these days.
With offensive numbers not nearly what they used to be, 30 home runs actually means something again. It’s a true indicator that you’re one of the elite power hitters in the game.
On Saturday night the Mets were held scoreless, with just three hits, by the Astros for 8 2/3 innings. With a runner on third and two outs in the ninth inning, Duda stepped up to the plate against lefty — yes, a lefty — Tony Sipp.
On a 1-0 count, the California native turned on an inside fastball that crashed off the right-field foul pole. In a meaningless September game the Citi Field crowed erupted as “The Dude” rounded the bases and was met by a mob of teammates at home plate. It was the third walk-off hit of his career, and only his second blast off a left-handed pitcher all year.
Home run No. 29.
On Sunday, in the season’s final game, Duda broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning with a two-run double that plated Eric Young, Jr. and Daniel Murphy.
He strolled up to the dish in the eighth inning for his 514th and final at-bat of the season. With Murphy on second base, Duda hit a 417-foot bomb — an absolute no-doubter — off of relief pitcher Mike Foltynewicz.
There it was. The coveted No. 30.
Upon returning to the dugout, his teammates were nowhere to be found. They left him by his lonesome as he mimicked high-fives before congratulations ensued. He was directed by bench coach Bob Geren to walk out and give a curtain call, where he received a loud ovation.
“This guy shows no emotion, and two days in a row he’s got a big smile on his face,” manager Terry Collins told reporters after the game. “It was great to see.”
Wait a second, here. Mets fans chanting Duda’s name? A curtain call? Is this some kind of parallel universe?
It’s been said over and over again that you couldn’t write Jeter’s walk-off hit in his final at-bat in the Bronx, but you really could. As amazing and exciting as it was, that’s simply what the captain does. He gets big hits and delivers in massive spots. We’ve seen him do it for 20 years now. Who didn’t think the future Hall of Famer was going to drive in that run in the ninth?
But Duda hitting two homers in the final two days of the season to reach 30, and then getting showered by love from a fan base that has been overly critical of him since he broke into the majors in 2010? Now that’s a truly unexpected and uplifting ending, and it was remarkable to see.
Duda’s final line: 30 home runs, 92 RBIs (which is very impressive considering his team didn’t score many runs), a .253 average, a .349 on-base percentage and 27 doubles. He also quietly impressed with the glove, making just seven errors in 145 games.
Duda finished third in the National League in home runs behind Giancarlo Stanton (37) and Anthony Rizzo (32).
Back in March, I wrote about how Davis set the Mets’ organization back years because he never lived up to his potential and left a glaring hole at first base that now had to be addressed with a limited budget. Following Davis’ awful 2013, I was in favor of letting him go and giving Duda a shot at first base. But to be fair, although I loved his swing and approach at the plate, I was unsure if he could be the .250-30-100 guy that the Mets needed in the cleanup spot.
Reflecting on the season that was, Duda took the job and ran with it. He showed that he has the ability to be a big-time hitter in the league. Yes, he needs to do to it next season. And the season after that. And the season after that.
There’s plenty more to prove, but there is no longer — by any stretch of the imagination — a hole at first base. Duda is this team’s first baseman moving forward, and the Mets can now say that with authority and confidence.
Brad Kallet is an editor and columnist for CBSNewYork.com. He has written for TENNIS.com, MLB.com and SMASH Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet.
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